An emotionally resonant tale of family, survival, love and betrayal told with cinematic aplomb.
In the spring of 1938, Teodor Mykolayenko returns to his family after a year spent in prison for the crime of trying to feed them. His wife and children have been living under the care of his sister Anna on the harsh and unforgiving prairie landscape. Channelling the great inner power that enabled him to survive drought, starvation, warfare, and Stalin’s crimes in Ukraine, he takes to the land with unbending resolve, and as the crops grow, his family heals and strengthens. But the family’s hopes and newfound happiness are short-lived when Anna’s rogue husband returns with an unforgiveable plan that threatens to take away everything they have built. A novel about family, pride, the resiliency and fragility of the human spirit and the fine line between those who break and those who don’t, Under This Unbroken Sky is a magnificent piece of storytelling from a remarkable new voice in contemporary literature.
"This stunning first novel is powerful, tragic and utterly gripping"
"Beautifully drawn characters, flawless descriptions of an unrelenting landscape and the intricate plot add to this harrowing, breathtaking novel... Not to be missed"
"Shandi Mitchell's impressive debut may not sound like your typical beach read but this tautly controlled epic should keep those in search of some holiday literary escapism hooked until the last page all the same"
"In the Canadian prairies, a Ukrainian family that has escaped Stalin's regime anxiously awaits the return of patriarch Theo from prison. Theo makes a deal with his sister Anna to farm part of her land, which the family then tends to support themselves. But this growing harmonious enterprise is devastated by the return of Anna's malevolent husband. A beautiful story about two families who have nothing, yet manage to strip each other of everything."
—Easy Living Magazine
"Shandi Mitchell's debut is not the cheeriest of reads—from the opening pages there's a palpable feeling of menace and unease —but it is utterly gripping. Epic in scope, this tale of family feuds, violence and hardship follows the fortunes of Theo Mykolayenko, a Ukrainian survivor of Stalin's labour camps who starts a new life in the harsh Canadian Prairies. His mettle is tested to the limit by the land and his neighbours' hostilities, but eventually his fields are golden with corn and his family start to thrive. That is, until the return of his sister's malevolent, drunken husband, whose merciless greed threatens to undermine everything Theo has so resolutely worked for. Beautifully pitched and unsentimental in execution. Brilliant."
“The starkly gorgeous prairie comes alive...Combining the storytelling skills of Ivan Doig with the stunning landscapes in Karen Fisher's A Sudden Country, Mitchell's harrowing story delivers an unforgettable literary tribute to an immigrant people and their struggle. The lyrical style, the riveting historical material, and the treatment of prejudice make the novel a great book-club choice.”
—Booklist, starred review
“Under This Unbroken Skycrushed and inspired me simultaneously, a novel I didn’t want to end. Shandi Mitchell’s prose strikes like a prairie thunderstorm, every page building to an intensity that’s simply awing to behold. Brilliant and honest and brutal, this new voice feels as old and right as anything I’ve read in a very long time.”
—Joseph Boyden, Giller Prize Award-winning author of Through Black Spruce
“A magnificent novel, written with grace and power, Under This Unbroken Sky is a powerhouse of a debut that grips from start to finish.”
—Steven Galloway, author of The Cellist of Sarajevo
“The tragedy Shandi Mitchell explores in her novel is as unforgettable as the truth and stark beauty of its telling. Mitchell’s extraordinary rendering of human suffering is matched by her ability to give powerful imaginative shape to the will to survive, to care for others, and to forgive the most brutal of trespasses.”
—Janice Kulyk Keefer, author of The Ladies’ Lending Library
“Under This Unbroken Sky is a dazzling novel. Shandi Mitchell's depiction of Depression-era prairie life has a vividness and veracity that brings to mind Willa Cather's fiction, but Mitchell's voice and her rendering of the human heart's complexities are completely her own. She is a writer of immense talent.
—Ron Rash, New York Times bestselling author of Serena
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY by SHANDI MITCHELL
When I turned eighteen, my father gave me a bottle of whiskey in a velvet pouch that he bought the day I was born. He said, "I have a secret to tell you." He told me my grandfather didn't die of the flu.
I had a vague childhood memory of being taken to a rural graveyard containing three wooden crosses. We walked past them into the brush. My father cut away brambles of wild pink roses to reveal a flat stone marker. The adults were silent and I knew not to play. Years later, we returned and this time there was a large stone monument, a fourth marker, in the far corner of the graveyard proper—my grandfather's grave. I asked my father's family about the grave in the woods. They said that was where it had always been. When I tried to verify the facts of my father's story, personal and recorded history contradicted his childhood memory. I almost gave up on the search. And then I found a newspaper article.
In that first moment I was ecstatic, I had found the truth. In the next, I was devastated. I had unearthed a tragic family secret, erased by time and buried in shame. I wondered how a man who had survived a WW1 POW camp, Lenin, and a trans-Atlantic crossing in steerage had finally been broken in Canada—the land of dreams. My grandfather's death would become the catalyst for a fictional journey into the lives of two families consumed by the land they yearned to possess.
I carried the spark of the idea for years, but I wasn't sure whose story it was. I set it aside knowing that I hadn't lived enough life yet to tell it. I immersed myself in my other passion, filmmaking and screenwriting. And then almost fifteen years later, the story called me again. I began writing tentatively, scene by scene, cautiously meeting each character, searching for the through-line. Teodor came first, proud and fractured. Then the others pulled me into their lives. It would be much later that I would discover Maria's strength.
Over the course of a year I completed the manuscript. Some days I worked for ten hour stretches, my fingers barely able to catch the words. Tell our story they whispered. I dreamed them. I woke with them. They walked with me in rain and snow, through wheat fields, and under starry skies. Listen, taste, smell, feel…they chattered in my head. I had written a hundred and fifty pages before I could admit it was a novel.
I set the story in a realistic framework anchored in historical fact. I liked the idea of ordinary paper artifacts being the only evidence of lives lived. I incorporated recipes, newspaper articles, receipts and letters to add authenticity to the fictional world. As a filmmaker, images have always been a great inspiration. So as I wrote, I collected photographs: Plowing, Dust Storm 1936, Man with Horse, Immigrant Family 1, Immigrant Family 2, Moving Stones, Three Women Winnowing, and a collection of Posters proclaiming "Free Farms for the Millions." I pinned a photograph of my family to my wall.
When I needed to remember details, I went back to the Prairies and stood in endless fields. Breathed in the sky. Hung out with cows and horses. Walked barefoot in the dust. Memorized the smell. Tried to remember the light and color. Listened for coyotes. Learned the names of wild plants and grasses. Rubbed the heads of wheat between my palms and blew chaff to the wind. I went to a graveyard and read the tombstones of those who had died from the flu. I found a granary built by my grandfather that still stands. Hand hewn marks on the beams.
As I wrote, I realized the story was about life, in all its beauty and savagery. It was about the moral lines that divide and join us. What is remembered and what is forgotten. And the fine line between those who break and those who don't.
The novel is fictional, the characters and events fabricated, and yet there are chapters like the feeding of the mice to the cats that my father read and said, "That's exactly how it happened. I remember that." Yet I drew that scene from my own childhood experience. I gave a reading and afterwards someone excitedly approached me, "It's real isn't it?" I hesitated, considering how to answer. He finished his sentence. "It's exactly what could have happened." I realized that real and fictional were interchangeable, so long as they were true.